John Turner

François Bregha

In support of the initiative to designate Laurier Avenue East as “Prime Ministers’ Row” to commemorate the prime ministers, Fathers of Confederation and other prominent Canadians who have made Sandy Hill their home, IMAGE is publishing a series of short capsules on several of our former distinguished neighbours. This ninth article features John Napier Turner.

First elected to Parliament in 1962, Turner was finance minister under Pierre E. Trudeau before resigning in 1975. After a career on Bay Street, he became leader of the Liberal Party in 1984 and Canada’s seventeenth prime minister before losing the general election that fall to Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives. Turner remained leader of the Opposition until 1990 when he was replaced by Jean Chrétien.

Turner was four years old when he, his widowed mother Phyllis and younger sister Brenda arrived in Ottawa in 1934. They first rented a duplex that no longer exists at 132 Daly Ave. for four years before moving to a larger house at 434 Daly where they lived until 1945. This house, which is still standing,  is the house Turner remembers as his childhood home.

Turner was enrolled at the Ottawa Normal School (now the heritage building part of City Hall) before transferring to Ashbury College at the start of the war when the government requisitioned the Normal School building. He finished his secondary schooling at a Catholic high school, St. Patrick’s College.

Turner was an excellent student (he skipped two grades and would go on to be a Rhodes Scholar) and was also a very good athlete (he would hold the Canadian record for the 100-metre dash). His mother set high expectations for him. She made sure he went to church every Sunday, enrolled him in piano and figure skating lessons, encouraged extra-curricular school activities (he won a debating championship at Ashbury) and sent him to summer camp where he learned swimming, canoeing and wilderness skills.

Phyllis Gregory Turner was a smart, well-educated, attractive and hard-working woman. An economist at the Tariff Board, she eventually became the senior woman in the male-dominated Canadian public service of the time.  She also liked to entertain at home. Her circle included rising stars such as Walter Gordon (future finance minister under Pearson), Norman Robertson (a senior Canadian diplomat) and Graham Towers (governor of the Bank of Canada). Turner would say later that the political discussion he had heard at home “made me more at ease with public issues, because I had heard them discussed at home, and at a high level.”

When he was a young boy, one of Turner’s duties was to walk the family dog, a cocker spaniel named Blue. He remembers running into Mackenzie King walking his own dog Pat and the two of them sitting on a park bench by the Rideau River in Strathcona Park.

In December 1941, when he was 12 years old, Turner’s mother took him to Parliament Hill to see Churchill who was to address the combined houses of Parliament. As Churchill came out, Phyllis Turner introduced herself and her two children. Turner remembers vividly Churchill looking him in the eye and saying, “Good of you to be here, good luck!”

In 1945, his mother remarried and moved her family to Vancouver where Turner enrolled at the University of British Columbia.